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Fee hikes ridiculous for retailers

I was astounded last week when I learned of one of the most unfair attempts to boost government revenue I've ever seen. Not only is it blatantly ridiculous, but further endangers the ability of already-teetering local grocery stores to remain open.

Until recently, stores only needed to pay a flat $100 fee for the right to sell cigarettes. Combined with gradually-increasing cigarette taxes, the fees have historically been a cash cow for state government. A proposal in the 2010 state budget, however, increased that fee tenfold or more.

The new fees are set at $1,000 for stores with annual gross revenues of less than $1 million, $2,500 for stores that earn between $1 million and $10 million, and $5,000 for stores earning $10 million or more. The scale is based not on how many smokes they sell, but rather their overall sales of everything from celery to Saran-Wrap.

About two weeks ago, State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Feinman issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the state from collecting more than the $100 flat fee, which was due Sept. 21. In the meantime, he's working to hash out a case brought by Long Island retailers against the fee hikes, and State Sen. Betty Little is requesting refunds for stores that already paid the increased fee.

If I had to guess, the chances of a judge saying 'no' to a fee increase is unlikely. The saddest part may be how this careless money-grab unfairly targets the mom-and-pop grocery and convenience stores, which are so crucial to Essex County communities.

If the goal of the increased fees is to discourage stores from selling the ever-popular carcinogens, why not simply ban cigarettes sales statewide? At least then these stores would no longer have to compete with the tax-free sale of cigarettes so prevalent on Indian reservations.

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